FIRE, FIRE!

The CCTV fire in Beijing underlines the futility of Chinese censorship

Late in the evening of February 9, a landmark building in the Beijing skyline, the Television Cultural Center, was consumed by fire just a few weeks ahead of its grand opening. Ironically, fireworks celebrating the end of the Chinese New Year were responsible for starting the blaze. In a sad spectacle rich with historical metaphors, it was as if the old Chinese spirit rebelled against the tyranny of the glass and metal skyscraper behemoths now being erected across China.

The most curious and revealing part of the whole mess, however, was the media response to it: As the Chinese government struggled to suppress all footage of the incident (caused by their own TV personnel), blogs and tweets carried cell-phone photos and videos around the world. Ultimately, the government’s inability to stifle the flow of information encapsulates the internal inconsistencies and long-term inviability of the Chinese political system.

The 34-story Television Cultural Center, which was supposed to house the spiffy Beijing Mandarin Oriental, was designed by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who intended to match the aesthetics of the adjacent China Central Television headquarters. Amidst the Olympics mania in 2004, the Chinese government hired Koolhaas’s firm to design a new headquarters for CCTV. The massive six-million-square-foot complex that resulted, which includes the Television Cultural Center, came to be known as “Zhichuang,” or “knowledge window.” With two leaning towers connected in mid-air, the complex’s design seeks to challenge what is possible, much like the Chinese government itself.

Under direct control of the autocratic Communist Party through the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, CCTV is the largest broadcaster in the country. With 16 national channels and over 10,000 employees, it reaches over one billion people in mainland China, with around a 30-percent airtime share. In a knowledge era, CCTV is at the core of the government’s control over the population.

It has now become clear that CCTV employees were to blame for starting the fire that destroyed the Television Cultural Center. They ignored a government regulation forbidding the usage of fireworks and chose the unfinished building as a backdrop for their display. It soon became a chaotic spectacle, after some of the explosions ignited flammable materials within the building’s internal walls.

But, if you had been tuned in to CCTV, you would not have heard of it. As the flames consumed the symbolic building adjacent to the network’s headquarters, a notice was circulated to Chinese news websites, media outlets, and blogs telling moderators to stop reporting on the fire. The government allowed no more posts, no more news, no more photos, hoping to contain what they saw as a tragedy and perhaps a threatening omen.

In an age of increasingly democratized media, however, the “Great Firewall of China,” as bloggers and analysts have baptized the government’s grip on the Internet, is becoming increasingly useless. In and out of China, pictures and live video feeds from cell phones were swiftly circulated, as well as Twitter updates and Google Maps photos. They even made it to the Huffington Post, where people worldwide speculated as to how the government would try to control it—the media, not the fire.

Eventually, the government released an “official” account through the state news agency, Xinhua. Thereafter, CCTV issued an apology regretting the damage to “state property,” although they forgot to mention the firefighter who died while combating the flames. And, finally, 12 CCTV employees were arrested “on suspicion of creating a disturbance with dangerous materials.” Their fate is, at this point, unclear.

Although Western hopes for change in the human-rights arena around the Olympics were thwarted last year, the CCTV complex fire shows that the current government grip on dissent and free information will become, sooner or later, unsustainable. No matter how they spin it, it was not possible for the government to control the imagery around the tragedy; everyone with access to the Internet could see the skyscraper burn. Perhaps more importantly, within China it was obvious that the elite employees of CCTV tried to get away with circumventing laws forbidding the use of fireworks in the complex. In more ways than one, it backfired—but the fact that such aristocracy exists in Chinese society is deeply resented by the rest of the population.

China has shown the world in the last 30 years that development can be defined in many ways. But the combination of censorship, autocratic rule, and an oligarchic elite resented by lower classes does not bode well, particularly in times of economic downturn. If media censorship is the Chinese version of the French Bastille, perhaps the next fire at CCTV headquarters will be more than an unfortunate accident.

Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.